Perry loses top Iowa adviser as campaign aims to reboot

Story highlights

  • Rick Perry's campaign lost a top supporter on Monday
  • The outside spending group supporting Perry is aiming to step up its efforts

Washington (CNN)Sam Clovis, the highly touted Iowa campaign co-chair for Rick Perry, has departed the Texas governor's presidential bid, a blow that comes as the campaign prepares to restructure its program in the early states.

Confronted by anemic fundraising that forced the candidate to stop paying all its workers, Perry's campaign is preparing to off-load some of its field operation to an allied super PAC. The move will test whether an outside group can organize just as well as a traditional campaign.
Over the next two weeks, Perry's field program will revamp as the $17 million super PAC plays the heavy and invests more of its war chest in propping up its cash-poor campaign.
    Yet the split between Clovis, a popular talk radio host in the state courted by other campaigns, and Perry shows the limits of how much the super PAC may be able to do to keep Perry's White House hopes afloat.
    The campaign told CNN earlier this month that only one staffer had planned to leave since the Austin-based shop shifted to all-volunteer status. (That person has since rejoined the campaign.) But now Perry is losing the man who the campaign once proclaimed as a "conservative icon" in Iowa.
    Perry is now putting a number of field staff in Iowa -- deemed a critical early state -- and South Carolina back on the payroll, campaign manager Jeff Miller said Monday.
    "We've obviously been doing some retooling," said Miller, adding that he did not know whether more campaign staffers would be leaving. "A huge majority of our people have stuck with us. This is a marathon, not a sprint."
    It is not immediately clear, though, if the bleeding has stopped.
    Perry's other Iowa co-chair, conservative activist Karen Fesler, said she's looking forward to learning what the "restructuring" of the campaign looks like in Iowa. She said she expected to know those details soon.
    "For the time being, I want to see what restructuring there is," said Fesler, who is close with Clovis, a former U.S. Senate candidate. "I'm just keeping an open mind."
    Clovis, whose move was first reported by The Associated Press, did not respond to requests for comment. He is expected to be wooed heavily by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump, among others.
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    The once swaggering Perry built a deep fundraising base as governor for 14 years in the Lone Star State, seen as a "Republican ATM." But some of his donors have fled for competing candidates with Texas roots like Cruz and Jeb Bush. The campaign only raised about $1 million in the first month of his campaign -- lagging nearly the entire Republican field (Cruz, for instance, raised $1 million in his campaign's first day.)
    Miller stressed that last week was one of the most successful fundraising periods they've had. And despite weak polling that could keep Perry out of more Republican prime-time debates, the campaign manager expressed confidence that the governor's soft touch with voters would allow him to slowly increase his support. Then the polls will catch up, he said.
    Perry is enjoying the backing of a well-funded Opportunity and Freedom PAC that is now shifting into a more central role in the Perry orbit. The group, which can't coordinate with the campaign but has raised more than $17 million, attempted and failed to lift Perry into the first Republican debate by increasing his poll numbers with national television ads. The super PAC plans to return to television the day after Labor Day.
    And within 10 days, field organizers hired by the outside spending group will flood Iowa, the early state where Perry allies see him as having one of the best chances to break through.
    "We're going to continue to also finish building our team that's going to help us implement what I think will be the best ground game in Iowa when it's all said and done," said Austin Barbour, the head of the super PAC.
    Yet whether super PACs -- which historically have focused overwhelmingly on negative television ads -- can organize voters remains virtually unproven. And given that the Perry campaign and the Perry super PAC now both have plans to organize in the Hawkeye State, voters may find themselves contacted twice by two organizations that can't share data about voters the other group may have touched.
    The governor's allies and aides stress that they have time to win voters over, pointing to other campaigns that hit rock bottom in the summer only to reascend in the winter or spring.
    But there are signs that some supporters are growing impatient. Iowa Sen. David Johnson -- a top Perry supporter -- said regardless of how the campaign is ultimately restructured, he wanted to see it happen quickly.
    "It has to happen this week. It has to happen this week," he repeated. "We need to move and we need to move soon."